It seems just like yesterday that Hall of Fame jockey Garrett Gomez was willing Blame to the finish line in the Breeders Cup Classic, edging legendary filly Zenyatta by a nose, under the twilight skies of Churchill Downs. However, it wasn’t yesterday, it was 2010. A lot has changed since then, most notably that Gomez left us all way too soon.
The 2018 Breeders Cup at Churchill is just a couple weeks away, so it is fitting that we look back at one of the greatest performances in Breeders Cup history. While everyone remembers Blame’s gallant effort to hold off a charging Zenyatta under the Twin Spires, what many don’t remember is how Gomez dominated the Breeders Cup not just that year, but during a five year stretch.
Gomez is considered by many to be the greatest closer who ever sat in the saddle, which is saying something considering the jockeys he rode against. Nobody will ever deny that Gomez battled demons that eventually cost him his life, but at the same time nobody will ever deny that no jockey dominated racing, and the Breeders Cup, like Gomez did from 2005-2010.
The likeable jock won 13 Breeders Cup races, including three in 2008 and three more in 2010. His record shows he won the BC Juvenile, BC Sprint, BC Filly and Mare Turf, BC Mile, BC Dirt Mile, BC Ladies Classic, as well as the BC Juvenile Filly Turf, and the BC Juvenile. But, it is his ride on Blame, where 100 yards from the finish line he was dead beat, that grew the legend of Garrett Gomez tenfold. It should be mentioned that Gomez is considered one of the most versatile jockeys in history too. His ability to win Breeders Cup races on grass and dirt, sprinting or routing, was a testament to his superior skill set.
Earlier on the Breeders Cup card, Gomez had won with Pluck in the Juvenile Turf and More Than Real in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. So, by the time Blame hit the track to face defending BC Classic Champion Zenyatta, all bets were off. The atmosphere was electric, mostly because Zenyatta was trying to stamp her place in history as the greatest filly to ever race. But, as fate would have it, in his last Breeders Cup win, Gomez would give Blame the ride of his life.
The race unfolded just as everyone expected, with Blame, at 9-2, laying back letting the speed dictate the race, while the favorite Zenyatta, as was her customary style, loped out of the gate to lay dead last. By the time the race established itself, and they were turning for home, Blame had circled Haynesfield, Fly Down, First Dude, and Muskat Man, while Zenyatta was still 15 lengths back. Lookin at Lucky was chasing the leaders too, but was no match for the top two.
The roar was deafening as Zenyatta and Mike Smith started to roll. She flew around the final turn, had to check just for a sec to move outside, then motored toward the wire like a freight train. Finally, 200 yards from the finish line, Zenyatta engaged Blame but, somehow, Gomez kept Blame running. The end result was obviously disappointing to the masses as Gomez got Blame’s nose down first. The win cemented Gomez as one of the greatest riders in the history of the game while Zenyatta, in defeat, became even more of a legendary figure in horse racing lore.
Time has faded but our memories have not. Gomez died December 14, 2016 at 2:47 pm, at the age of 44. It was a heartbreaking end to a fabulous life. In addition to his Breeders Cup success, Gomez broke jockey Jerry Bailey’s single season stakes record, riding 76 winners in stakes races in 2007. That same year, he won the Eclipse Award as thoroughbred racing’s top jockey.
Gomez won 3,769 times in his illustrious career. 100-plus of those wins were stakes wins including his 13 Breeders Cup wins. Additionally, he led the country in money won four straight years from 2006-2009 while winning a second Eclipse Award in 2008. But, it was the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 2011 that meant the most to Gomez. The Woolf Award is voted on by other jockeys from the Jockey Guild, so it was with great pride that Gomez accepted the award. The award is presented annually to the jockey who “demonstrates high standards of personal and professional conduct, both on and off the racetrack.”
Gomez told me, back in 2011, that the honor “will always mean more to me than any race I ever won.”
Shortly after his death, Gomez was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, thoroughbred racing’s highest honor. At the ceremony, which I was lucky enough to attend, Gomez’ father Louie told stories about how Gomez’ was intoduced to racing. One story recalled how the jockeys used to throw 4 year old Garrett into the laundry bin, not letting him out until he shouted a curse word. Another story told how Louie tried to get a young Garrett to quit chewing tobacco. So, Louie decided they would sit down, he’d have a chat with his son, and that would be that. To let young Garrett know how serious he was, Louie force Garrett to take a big chew of tobacco with his Dad. Louie was the one who got sick.
While the stories of Gomez’ childhood had the Hall of Fame crowd cracking up, one act of kindness will go down as one of the finest moments in Hall of Fame history. Javier Castellano, the top jockey who was inducted at the same time as Gomez, asked all the jockeys to join him in a tribute to Gomez. As each jockey left the stage, they stopped by to give Louis Gomez a hug or a kiss on the cheek while he sat in his seat. It was as touching a moment as has ever taken place at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Time will continue to pass us by, jockeys and horses will retire, and new superstars will rise up on the horizon. But, today, we look back to remember a special rider and a special guy. Garrett Gomez, one of the finest jockeys to ever grace a Breeders Cup race.